A. Hoen and Co., “Coho Salmon Breeding Male” from The Fishes of Alaska (1907) by Barton Warren Evermann and Edmund Lee Goldsborough; Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of Fisheries, Washington, DC (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of December, while scrolling through various online news outlets, which I often do at the beginning of my day, I read an article by John Ryan that was posted by Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Scientists Point to Chemical in Car Tires That’s Been Killing Coho Salmon” (December 4, 2020). 

In the article, I learned why each year thousands upon thousands of coho salmon die when they return to the freshwater rivers to spawn. According to the article, the “toxic substance” is added to tires to preserve them and prevent cracking. This is from the article: 

The preservative protects tire rubber from the damaging effects of ozone in the air by reacting first with the ozone. But in doing so, it turns into a coho killer.

Runoff from pavement carries a stew of thousands of different, mostly unidentified, chemicals into nearby waters: from motor oil, antifreeze, brake linings, tire dust and more.

That runoff is the main source of toxic pollution in Puget Sound, where fish in urban bays often have tumors and lesions.

Ocean-roaming coho salmon find their way home to freshwater to spawn each fall as autumn rains cause coastal creeks to rise.

But up to 90% of the returning fish die, gasping for breath and swimming aimlessly in the creeks before they are able to spawn.

This article reminded me of the artist William T. Wiley’s concern about the increasing scarcity of salmon in the San Francisco Bay. A week after reading it I woke up thinking about Robert Rauschenberg’s “Automobile Tire Print” (1953), which I soon discovered happens to be in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

From the moment I woke up, seeing “Automobile Tire Print” in my mind’s eye, I knew that I had to recognize what — besides being made by a car tire — connected the work to the pollution caused by humans of the Puget Sound. 

This is what is posted about “Automobile Tire Print” on the museum’s website:

“Automobile Tire Print” (1953) records one of Robert Rauschenberg’s most intriguing collaborative efforts. In 1953, the artist directed composer John Cage (1912-1992) to drive his Model A Ford in a straight line over twenty sheets of paper that Rauschenberg had glued together and laid in the road outside his Fulton Street studio in Lower Manhattan. The car’s front tire left a faint embossed impression, while the rear tire, which had passed through a pool of paint Rauschenberg had poured in the street, deposited a juicy black tread mark that stretches in a diminishing line along the twenty-foot length of paper.

True to form, the museum’s website offers a minimum of elucidation, preferring to stick to a formal reading. 

Over the years, “Automobile Tire Print” has been interpreted as a monoprint, a drawing, a performance, a process piece, and a distinctive exploration of indexical mark making. 

Of course, “Automobile Tire Print” has nothing to do with the yearly poisoning of spawning salmon, at least not if you believe in literal connections and a universe determined by the laws of cause and effect. 

Thinking about John Ryan’s online article and Rauschenberg’s uncategorizable work, I felt I was listening to an argument. One voice was that of the critic; it said not to become fanciful and make connections where are none. The other voice was that of the poet saying everything connects; you just have to find it. 

Robert Rauschenberg, “Automobile Tire Print” (1953), monoprint: house paint on 20 sheets of paper, mounted on fabric 16 1/2 x 286 inches; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (image courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

In 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road (1957) on a continuous 120-foot roll of tracing paper that he had cut, joined together, and inserted into his typewriter. He completed the first draft in three weeks. It is about three road trips that Sal Paradise (Neal Cassidy) and Dean Moriarty (Kerouac) took between 1947 and ’50. 

Between 1955 and ’56, Robert Frank drove back and forth across the United States, taking 28,000 photographs. Out of these, he selected 83 for The Americans (1958), which was first published in France (Les Américains) with writings by Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, and John SteinbeckThe cover was a drawing by Saul Steinberg. 

In 1957, Frank met Kerouac in New York, on the street outside a party of “poets and beatniks.” After showing him some of the photographs, Kerouac told Frank: “Sure, I can write something about these pictures.” In 1959, The Americans was published by Grove Press, which was owned by Barney Rosset, a childhood friend of Joan Mitchell. In 1947, while living in an apartment at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Manhattan side, Rosset took nude photographs of Mitchell, which were published more than half a century later, in the Evergreen Review (Issue 104, 2001).

The pairs of Rauschenberg and Cage and Frank and Kerouac lived in different, overlapping social milieus. And yet, they all made art for which they needed a car. 

In the work of Frank and Kerouac, the artist is a loner traveling through America in a car, often at night. Loneliness and isolation permeates their work; they are witnesses to a world from which they are estranged. 

Frank used a portable hand-held camera. Working without a flash, and relying on available light, sometimes taking the photo surreptitiously, the angles were odd and many of the views are grainy. 

The first works of Rauschenberg’s to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art were photographs. 

Frank and Rauschenberg were inspired by Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938), which was first published by the Museum of Modern Art in a letterpress edition. This description appeared on the book’s cover: 

[Evans], photographing in New England or Louisiana, watching a Cuban political funeral or a Mississippi flood, working cautiously so as to disturb nothing in the normal atmosphere of the average place, can be considered a kind of disembodied, burrowing eye, a conspirator against time and its hammers. 

Evans’s still shots of vernacular America showed Rauschenberg and Frank another way to look at their immediate circumstances, that perhaps there was no higher goal than to see what was in front of your eyes.

Pouring the paint onto the street in Lower Manhattan, Rauschenberg had Cage drive the car, with the front tire securing the joined sheets of paper while the back tire, having rolled through the paint, left an impression on the paper. Together, Cage and the car merged; they became a printing press rolling the medium onto the paper. Rauschenberg was the person who conceived of this possibility as well as aided in the printing, as co-author and assistant. 

Frank and Kerouac drove back and forth across America, in search of something they never found. 

Rauschenberg’s car goes in one direction and there is no turning back or away. 

Collaborating with Cage, as he did with Willem de Kooning that same year, when he asked him for a drawing to erase, Rauschenberg took a very different path than Frank and Kerouac, who aligned with the model of the artist as a masculine loner, an isolated genius. 

Presented as a scroll, “Automobile Tire Print” evokes a Chinese ink drawing, a landscape without mountains and waterfalls, but nevertheless constantly changing. 

We see only part of the path taken, not what was seen, all of which no longer exists. The beginning and end of the journey are beyond our vision; we see only what is in front of us. 

Perhaps Rauschenberg understood something about the car and America that Frank and Kerouac never grappled with. No matter where it went, the automobile would leave an indelible stain on whatever it touched, poisoning the immediate world it caressed in passing.  

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...